Loose Cannon: Reassessing Los Angeles Municipal Judge Noel Cannon, Part II

Nicholas Beyelia, Librarian, History and Genealogy Department,
Colorize photo of Judge Nicole Cannon with a pro-superimposed political advertisement
Photo by Cliff Wesselmann from the Herald-Examiner Collection

The Derringer Press Conference

The Derringer press conference is what Judge Cannon became infamous for, and the blowback would be mighty. The popular narrative often goes something like this: Judge Cannon calls a press conference to draw attention to herself and does so by brandishing a gun at the press. They take photos that are distributed around the world, and she turns the Los Angeles judicial system into a national embarrassment. But that isn't quite what happened.

Judge Cannon press conference photograph
The infamous Derringer press conference photograph. Author’s collection

In March, a few months prior to the press conference, Judge Cannon was subjected to an administrative transfer from her beloved traffic court to presiding over preliminary felony hearings. The juxtaposition was more than a bit jarring as she had gone from traffic violations and drunk driving offenses to preliminary hearings related to violent crimes. Many of the cases involved violence against women, and it deeply disturbed her. The sexual revolution of the late 1960s encouraged young women to be uninhibited, often lulling them into a false sense of security. Despite the "love and peace" ethics being preached by hippies in the street, violence against women was still a reality. Cannon claimed that she wanted to prevent women from becoming victims and had called a press conference ostensibly to educate women about how to "protect their lives and their virtue." Judge Cannon stated that "society brainwashes single girls into dating indiscriminately, and many women find themselves in circumstances they should not be in." She explained to the press that "the criminal male is physically superior and psychologically inferior, so he chooses a victim weaker than he." She encouraged women to be vigilant and suggested everyday items that could be used to defend themselves. She pulled out a letter opener from her desk and produced a bejeweled hatpin: "A quick jab to the midsection of an attacker with this could be very effective. It has a triple advantage. It doubles him up, leaves an identifying mark, and requires him to seek medical attention." A clerk in her office gave her a whistle that she looked at, blew furiously, and quickly dismissed, "I don't know what good this would do...a piercing scream is better." She stated, "Women alone should be alert to the possible dangers of everyday situations such as stepping into an elevator with a lone man or staying in a business building after everybody else has gone." When asked how she chose to defend herself, she pulled out her pearl-handled Derringer. She did not, however, attempt to shoot the photographers, nor did she suggest that women should be packing heat, as subsequent reports state: "... I'm not recommending it for women to carry. I want to emphasize that I don't recommend a gun." When asked by photographers to demonstrate how she would face an attacker, she posed and the image was immortalized on film; it has since turned into the "go-to" photo when anyone writes about Judge Cannon. The shock value was and remains much too outrageous not to exploit.

Judge Cannon in a mini skirt dress holding a gun
Another photo from the Derringer Press Conference dated May 17, 1967. Judge Cannon is wearing the dress she described as her "Alice in Wonderland" dress. The letter opener can be seen in Judge Cannon's left hand and a hatpin can be seen in her left one. Her Derringer is holstered inside the ribbon of her dress. Herald-Examiner Collection

One can debate Judge Cannon's intentions with this conference. Cannon attempted to defend herself by explaining that the conference was done in her "off-time" and pointed to the fact that she had removed her robe before addressing the press; still, the conference was held within the courthouse and inside of her chambers. Cannon, however, was unwavering in her assertion that this conference was staged in the interest of the public, with the Times quoting Cannon as saying she believed that it was "not only the right but the duty of all judges to speak out on matters which concern the public." Judge Cannon's profile within a magazine or her appearance on a talk show was reaching more of the public than her contemporaries, who usually limited public speaking to conventions of lawyers about law and, essentially, 'preaching to the choir.' It's very easy to conclude that Cannon was merely trying to keep herself in the spotlight, and perhaps there was a grain of truth in that. The fact is that she had little control over what ended up in print, but in between banal descriptions of what she was wearing, how much she weighed, her dress size, her age, etc., she expressed genuine concerns about the law, women, gender discrimination, equal rights, and personal safety that remain relevant to this day. This press conference either validated the concerns that were manifesting concerning Judge Cannon's behavior or showed the lengths she would go to in order to advocate for women. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.

Judge Cannon demonstrating how to find a wiretap on a phone
Judge Cannon demonstrating how to find a wiretap on a phone. In the 1960s, the legality of wiretaps had become a national concern, with a number of law enforcement agencies muddying the water. Herald Examiner Collection

"Patters" and "Pinchers"

Despite Judge Cannon's best intentions, the press conference backfired. Part of the problem was that feminism was still looked at as a joke to the patriarchal establishment, and women espousing discourse that even vaguely appeared to be advocating for women's equality were dismissed. Paul Coates, a television personality and newspaper columnist who regularly bemoaned any actions that would extend rights to minority groups, wrote a piece on Judge Cannon's press conference that appeared in the May 28, 1967 edition of the Los Angeles Times. His opinion piece minimized violence against women as tantamount to being either "patted" or "pinched," and he relished mocking, belittling, and objectifying Judge Cannon:

"Listen, Judge Cannon, this town just isn't big enough for the both of us…You have, I realize, a very personal interest in this situation because, under your robes, you are a petite and shapely 32-22-32. And to add fuel to those incendiary measurements, you are a pretty wide-eyed blonde. But judge, I, too, have a personal interest in this situation. I must, under penalty of perjury, testify that I'm a secret masher. A parade of witnesses could take the stand and attest to the fact that I'm an old roue…You see, judge, honey, I have this overwhelming urge to be a pincher. When I majored in psychology, I read all the dirty parts of Havelock Ellis, and according to him, male animals are divided into two groups: the "patters" and the "pinchers." I can follow the motivation for a little pat, but I don't understand what's so erotic about a little pinch….Now, with your spiteful advice to women, Judge Cannon, I suppose I'll never find out...Since a jab with a hatpin hurts like hell, I'd better abandon any thoughts of a field project and do my studying at home. The clinical surroundings are not ideal, of course. Someone studying the phenomenon of pinching won't get the same results by pinching his wife... "

Coates’ Times column mocking Judge Cannon
Coates’ Times column mocking Judge Cannon

Coates seemed to take particular delight in mocking Cannon's advice to women about being conscious of their surroundings on an elevator and at businesses after hours, concluding with, "To this advice, I would like to add, your honor, a bewitching girl like you shouldn't wear miniskirts. Even if you're a judge, you're liable to get pinched." The fact that Coates's column was considered appropriate for the Times to print, particularly under the more progressive leadership of Otis Chandler, speaks volumes about the social climate of the period.


Following the press conference, the Times reported that three-quarters of the 52 Los Angeles municipal judges had signed a resolution that was forwarded to the Conference of California Judges and the California Judicial Qualifications Commission requesting a formal censure of Judge Cannon based on seeking "personal publicity." An AP wire story indicated there was an element of sexism in the action: "The male judges of the Los Angeles Municipal Court, in what is obviously an ungentlemanly act, are censuring their female counterpart on the bench" (it's difficult to verify this claim as the Commission does not make information about Judicial censures available). Judge Cannon responded through the Times, telling reporters that "it's ironic that while I'm busy on the bench dealing with the underworld, the overworld attacks me. The time of the judges would be better spent investigating particular instances of judicial immorality, intemperance, inability, absenteeism, and unpunctuality - the particulars of which they are more familiar with than I. But they choose to close their eyes to these indiscretions of their overworld." The United Press reported that Cannon claimed to have knowledge of "sexual and financial immorality" among many of those who signed the resolution. Judge Cannon did not disclose details of the alleged immorality and the AP noted that she seemed, "impervious to criticism of the black-robed men around her." Later press reports stated that she had, in fact, been formally censured. Thereafter, Judge Cannon withdrew from the limelight almost entirely from 1968 to 1974. The fallout from the Derringer press conference eventually dissipated, but the event was never really forgotten. At least in her courtroom, Judge Cannon would have absolute authority, and she would not be cowed, underestimated, mocked, or demeaned...or so she thought.

Judge Cannon pointing to a chart of L.A. Traffic trends
Judge Cannon pointing to a chart of L.A. Traffic trends, 1965. Photo by Cliff Wesselmann. Herald Examiner Collection

"One of the nice things about Christmas is knowing that there are people like you in this world."

In the aftermath of the Derringer conference and being censured, Judge Cannon's already waning reputation began to wither even more. She became a joke to those in the courthouse and an easy victim of courthouse bullies, as no one was willing to stand up for her. The internet is filled with a number of stories about 'crazy' Judge Cannon and, in all fairness, her behavior could, at times, be construed as eccentric, if not erratic: for example, bringing her dog to the bench with her, keeping a mechanical chirping canary in her chambers, and walking around the courthouse with a gun. It's also quite clear that she had a target on her back. In 2012, one lawyer recounted how other lawyers in her courtroom would blow a dog whistle so that her dog would urinate on her lap. Other stories involve lawyers openly challenging her in the courtroom, and, being a layperson, it's difficult to interpret what constitutes "curt and rude" when the Judge's authority or ruling is being challenged, so I can't say if it's normal to question and/or contradict a judge in open court. I certainly wouldn't try. These types of incidents kept occurring, and she had a particularly contentious relationship with the Public Defender's office, particularly one of the higher-ups in that office, who she alleged "had lied to her in open court." She seemed to believe that the supervisor's disrespect for her had trickled down, infecting the entire office and leading her to slap contempt charges on a number of Public Defenders; one of the jailed PDs asserted that "her favorite activity was jailing public defenders." This same Public Defender also confessed that he enjoyed "getting under her skin," explaining that, "We battled almost daily. Our tiffs drew crowds, as other attorneys and courthouse personnel would find reasons to drop into Division 40 during downtimes for a little light legal entertainment." He explained, "Typically, Judge Cannon would issue a ruling, I would tell her she was wrong and continue spouting case law and statutes supporting my argument long after she told me to shut up. Some judges respected my feistiness; Judge Cannon wasn't one of them." Another incident that was recounted involved Judge Cannon's suspicion that the Public Defender in question may have had an inappropriate relationship with his female client. He alleged that Cannon told him, "More than one attorney has been disbarred for amorous conduct with a defendant." The P.D. went on to allege that he was jailed based upon Cannon's misinterpretation of this relationship, and when released, he felt the need to mail Judge Cannon a Christmas card with the words "Noel, Noel" on the front. The inside read, "One of the nice things about Christmas is knowing that there are people like you in this world." The PD then bullied a second Public Defender (whom Cannon had also jailed for contempt) into endorsing the card alongside his own signature, writing that "I think I said either his signature or his brains would be on the card…" After reading the card, Judge Cannon phoned the Defender's supervisor (the same one she had a contentious relationship with) and demanded to know the meaning behind the card. The supervisor "assured her that we weren't being facetious," while the Defender who authored the card laughed hysterically and told the supervisor, "he should have the guts to tell the truth." Considering all that was happening, it would seem reasonable to assume that Judge Canon's defenses were up. Judge Joan Dempsey Klein described Cannon during this period as "paranoiac" with a tendency to view other officers of the court with "grave suspicions."

Judge Noel Cannon shows sketches of a new L.A. traffic center
"Judge Noel Cannon shows sketches of a new L.A. traffic center which will have recessed camera room." Photo by MikeMullen. Herald-Examiner Collection

"A .38 Caliber Vasectomy"

Writers discussing Judge Cannon's removal typically focus on two events: the Derringer press conference and a run-in with a traffic cop referred to as the ".38 caliber vasectomy" incident. The traffic cop story has been distributed as far and wide as England, where it appeared in a 2013 London Times article. It goes like this: Judge Cannon was stopped behind a large vehicle that was making a left-hand turn on the corner of Arcadia and Spring Street. A pedestrian happened to be crossing the street at that moment, so the vehicle was stopped. Unable to see the pedestrian crossing the street (and the reason for the holdup), Judge Cannon began honking furiously. An unsuspecting traffic cop, Officer Richard Fagin, pulled up beside her and told her to ease up on her horn. It was reported that Judge Cannon responded, "You got to hell, Officer," and drove off. Following this, Judge Cannon arrived at the courthouse and was enraged. She instructed the bailiff, Steven Day, to "find the son of a b--ch" because she was planning on giving him a ".38 caliber vasectomy." The records indicate that she blew through the courthouse, yelling at some of the law enforcement higher-ups in the building, telling a Sergeant in the courthouse that she was "not going to take the bench until you find that male chauvinist pig." She brought the Sergeant, a Lieutenant, and a Captain to her chambers and told them she could sound her "g--damned horn any place in the city" and no "male chauvinist officer" could tell her otherwise. She ordered them to stay in her chambers and instructed the bailiff to shoot them if they tried to leave. She reiterated the phrase "male chauvinist" a number of times (as well as some other colorful words and phrases). Most retellings of this incident end here or at the point where the officer was brought to Cannon's chambers and was, rather inexplicably, given religious literature by the Judge. This incident is true and remains just as shocking today as the day it occurred, but there is also more to the story.

Officer Fagin was indeed brought into her chambers, and instead of pursuing the firearm-based family planning action she had described earlier, she calmly told Fagin that he had been "a naughty boy." Based on Fagin's recollection of the conversation, she appeared to be setting him up to see if he was going to challenge her. He did not. Instead, he offered a simple response, "If you say so, Judge." She asked him what he meant by that statement and he responded with, "Well, you are the Judge." Realizing Fagin was not challenging her authority, the officer noted that her tone shifted and became more casual. She told Fagin that she had attended a religious seminar that she felt had been valuable to her, and she passed along the literature she was given at the seminar to Office Fagin, who left shortly thereafter. Two weeks later, Judge Cannon sent a letter to LAPD Chief of Police Edward Davis. Officer Fagin recalled its contents: "It was just addressed to Chief Davis. Chief of Police, and it said the Los Angeles Police Department is the finest in the world, and the T.E.D. motor squad was the finest of L.A., and Officer Fagin was the finest of the fine, and it was signed by Noel Cannon." I can't dismiss the markedly unprofessional behavior and a clear abuse of power, but the incident illustrates that Judge Cannon was on the defensive and had a zero-tolerance policy for any perceived chauvinism.

In 1968, Judge Cannon came up for reelection, and the Los Angeles County Bar Association made it a point not to endorse her, throwing their support behind her opponent instead. Cannon, nevertheless, won a plurality of votes and stayed on the bench. It can not be overstated that tensions were about to reach a crescendo.

Political advertisement for Judge Cannon’s re-election
Political advertisement for Judge Cannon’s re-election. Included are endorsements from Superior Court Judge Kenneth Chantry and County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. Chantry was one of Cannon's few Judicial supporters and served as the chair of her reelection campaign, while philanthropist Sybil Brand served as the secretary of her campaign. These individuals should have helped to secure her endorsement by the Los Angeles County Bar Association, but they did not

"A Course of Conduct which has Maligned the Judicial Office…"

On July 8, 1974, Judge Cannon was given notice that formal proceedings had been filed against her, asking for her removal from office. Judge Cannon was accused of abusing her contempt power, interfering with the attorney-client relationship by arbitrarily appointing new counsel, interfering with bail and bench warrants, setting unreasonable bail amounts, intimidating defense attorneys, abusing the prerogatives of her high office, engaging in curt and rude conduct, engaging in "bizarre" behavior and, finally, it was alleged that she ordered the court reporter to delete material from preliminary hearing transcripts. On March 3, 1975, she was suspended from office.

 Judge Cannon and her bailiff, Deputy County Marshal Charles Hurd
March 1964 photo showing Judge Cannon and her bailiff, Deputy County Marshal Charles Hurd. Hurd disarmed a man who brought the loaded .45 automatic into the courthouse. Hurd is holding the gun cartridge while Cannon is holding the unloaded pistol. Cannon was quoted as saying, "They didn't teach me anything about guns in law school." Herald-Examiner Collection

The Commission on Judicial Qualifications, the office that oversees judicial conduct in California, appointed three special masters (a special master is an official appointed by the court to hear evidence on behalf of the court and make recommendations as to the disposition of a matter) who reviewed the evidence against Judge Cannon and unanimously determined that the matter warranted a censure of the Judge. The special masters panel stated that Judge Cannon was an "extremely diligent and conscientious worker" but pointed to the fact that she was overworked, failed to take "proper" vacations, and was "clearly shown disrespect by some deputy public defenders." They indicated that in 11 years on the bench, Judge Cannon averaged only 5 days of vacation and 1.6 days of sick leave per year, stating that she had been "assigned to the same type of specialized work, preliminary hearings, for an unreasonably long period of time." The panel spoke with Joan Dempsey Klein, who admitted that despite "erratic" behavior, Cannon was known for being hardworking and conscientious, yet she was "possessed of great fears." The panel concluded their evaluation by stating that Cannon "is capable of continuing in her judicial position and functioning as a responsible, effective judge and that she can and will avoid a repetition of the conduct which is the basis of recommendation for censure." The Commission, however, overrode that determination and made the decision that removal was warranted. In handing down their ruling, the Commission determined that Judge Cannon "has engaged in a course of conduct which has maligned the judicial office and clearly establishes her lack of temperament and ability to perform judicial functions in an even-handed manner." They concluded that she was guilty of twenty-one acts of "willful misconduct in office" and eight acts constituting conduct that was prejudicial to the administration of justice and behavior that "brings the judicial office into disrepute." Predictably, the Derringer press conference is mentioned in the final report but a disclaimer notes that this incident is not being factored into the overall decision because she had refrained from similar behavior since that time. Strangely, the final report also included events that happened outside the courthouse, including a spat she had with the landlord of her apartment complex, telling him, "I'm going to shoot you, George, you son of a b--h. And you are going to die slowly."

Judge Cannon in her robes in court
Undated photo. Herald-Examiner Collection

"The Victim of a Vendetta"

Judge Cannon's defenders did step forward during the hearing to speak on her behalf. The Times reported that 17 private attorneys, one deputy district attorney, and a public official all came forward to commend Cannon. Of the private attorneys speaking on her behalf, none felt that Judge Cannon was either biased or rude in her interactions with Public Defenders. LAPD Police Chief Edward Davis also came forward to defend Judge Cannon, suggesting that the Public Defender's Office was the problem. Davis told the Times that Cannon was "the victim of a vendetta by vindictive young public defenders." He stated that "this is the second Municipal Court Judge who has been fired by the young public defenders who have demonstrated contempt in her court. The three local judges [the special masters] sitting on the masters hearing who know her work decided to retain her. Chief Justice [Donald Richard] Wright showed his bigotry towards her from his intemperate remarks during the hearing before the Supreme Court. The people want tough judges, and tough judges are liable to be removed while there has been no disciplinary action in California toward judges who contribute to crime through their catering to the criminal with soft sentences" (Chief Davis' defense of Cannon may have held more weight if he weren't also including Judge Leland W. Geiler among the Judges who have been wrongfully removed from the bench). Cannon's lawyer in the hearing, I. Richard Ruman contended that Cannon's actions were necessary to manage the "wild and wooly approach" of "young and inexperienced Public Defenders." Still, it's a little too easy to assign blame exclusively to the Public Defender's Office here.

Losing her courtroom was broadcast far and wide as this story from the Minneapolis Star newspaper shows
Losing her courtroom was broadcast far and wide as this story from the Minneapolis Star newspaper shows

In all fairness, the Public Defenders were (and remain) overworked, underpaid, and doing a very necessary public service which is often thankless. Through no fault of their own, many of the PDs seemed to be caught in the crossfire between Cannon and the "higher-ups" within the Public Defender's Office. But there were those who deliberately turned Cannon into a target of ridicule and did whatever they could to undermine her. It also sounds like it may have become a rite of passage for those in the Public Defender's office to "get under her skin," and so Cannon, defenses up, guns blazing (no pun intended), went in on the offensive and lived that way for a very long time.

Cannon was allowed to challenge the Commission's decision, and her lawyer, I. Richard Ruman argued her case for more than an hour. During oral arguments, Chief Justice Don Wright remarked that he could only think of two reasons for Cannon's conduct: "illness" or being "goaded beyond possible endurance." Wright stated that Cannon had brought the "so-called mental strain" on herself by the sheer volume of cases she heard, noting that "she's not there as a computer, she's supposed to be a judge." The Commission did not yield in their initial decision, and Noel Cannon was removed from the bench by the California Supreme Court.

Front page of the Los Angeles Times July 11, 1975
Front page of the Los Angeles Times, July 11, 1975

Judge Cannon's removal from the bench was ordered "forthwith." She was not disbarred, which meant she was able to continue to practice law but it's unclear if she did so because, after 1975, Judge Cannon seems to go off the grid. This mini-skirted judge, who appeared to love the limelight, pulled a Garbo and seemingly disappeared from public life. I found a passing mention of her becoming a lobbyist for a special interest group, but no way to verify if this was correct. [If anyone reading this knows what happened to her, please contact me] She did revert back to her given name of Nancy and returned to San Francisco at some point, where she passed away on December 10, 1998.

People often complain that history is the story of the people who "won the battle," and this is one of those instances. Cannon's status as a pioneer in L.A.'s legal landscape has been irreparably tarnished in the ensuing 50 years following her removal. Her overall retreat from public life left her reputation without a defender, so she became a cautionary tale. In another era, Judge Cannon probably would have been a celebrated feminist legal figure, a la Gloria Allred, or a no holds barred television jurist along the lines of Judy Sheindlin, but, unfortunately, she was too far ahead of her time, and instead, became a joke. Battered and bruised, Cannon faded into obscurity only to be resuscitated by writers and reporters wanting to discuss oddball figures in L.A. History or public officials who abused their power. In these instances, she is almost always painted as a "loose cannon" on the warpath who threatened to shoot anyone who stood in her way. Cannon's time as a Municipal Judge in Los Angeles, however, isn't quite the straightforward story some people want it to be, but, for that matter, what story is? Cannon was a complicated individual who, in many respects, was without a network of peer support both as a judge and a woman. Yes, Cannon did enjoy notoriety and her brushes with fame, that is clear, but she wasn't quite the shameless self-promoter that contemporary stories try to turn her into. Judge Noel Cannon was, perhaps, eccentric, but she shouldn't be seen exclusively for those eccentricities and deserves to be recognized as one of the pioneers in her profession for her unwavering dedication to that profession and for a valiant battle against sexism, chauvinism, and misogyny that she was forced to wage on her own.

Judge Cannon at the Bench, [1967]
Judge Cannon at the Bench, [1967]. Author’s collection